PROVO — When we last saw BYU football, it was rolling up big yardage and piling up a lot of points in a 49-23 trouncing of Hawaii.
But the new-look offense, quarterbacked by true freshman starter Zach Wilson, is expected to get a much stiffer test this week when the Cougars host Northern Illinois Saturday (1:30 p.m. MDT, ESPNU).
Both BYU and NIU, sporting identical 4-3 records, are coming off bye weeks.
Leading the way for the Huskies is junior defensive lineman Sutton Smith, who is among the nation’s leaders with seven sacks this season. He’s No. 4 nationally in tackles-for-loss with 13.
Last year, Smith was No. 1 in the country in sacks (14) and tackles for loss (29.5).
Northern Illinois will have had a couple of weeks to prepare for Wilson and the Cougar offense.
Against a porous Hawaii defense, BYU rushed for a season-high 280 yards. Matt Hadley ran eight times for 87 yards and a touchdown, Lopini Katoa rushed 16 times for 83 yards and a TD, and Riley Burt picked up 59 yards and a touchdown on nine carries.
In his first career start, Wilson completed 16 of 24 passes for 194 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran for another TD.
Wilson’s 167.5 pass efficiency rating was the best by a BYU true freshman making his first start.
Prior to the Hawaii game, BYU wide receiver Dylan Collie discussed his team’s offensive woes and how the offense was evolving.
“It’s a new offense. I think a lot of people think that because coach Sitake has been here for a few years that everything on the offensive side of the ball is going to be easy. It is a new staff,” Collie said. “Just because people are familiar with BYU doesn’t mean everything is going to be just dandy from the get-go. New offenses take time. When we do use every facet of the pass game, the run game and the motions, all those things, it takes time to make a well-oiled machine happen. It takes patience. As we continue to grow every week, there are different facets of the offense that continue to do better and increase. We’re progressing. We’re not taking any steps back, I promise you. If people want to think that, they can. But inside this building, we know we’re taking steps forward.”
Northern Illinois, which sits in first place in the West Division of the Mid-American Conference, opened the season with losses to Iowa (33-7) and Utah (17-6).
The Huskies have won five of their last five games with victories over Central Michigan (24-16), Eastern Michigan (26-23, 3OT), Ball State (24-16) and Ohio (24-21) before taking a bye last week. NIU’s other loss came at Florida State (37-19).
Meanwhile, after last year’s awful four-win season, BYU is looking to get back into the bowl business. The Cougars saw their 12-year bowl streak come to an end in 2017.
BYU opened the 2018 campaign with a 3-1 record, then, following two consecutive lopsided losses to Washington and Utah State, it appeared its bowl hopes could be in some trouble.
But with a blowout of Hawaii, the Cougars roared back to life. BYU is now two victories away from getting bowl eligible.
Before the win over the Rainbow Warriors, the Cougars were 3-6 at LaVell Edwards Stadium since the start of the 2017 season.
Defensive lineman Corbin Kaufusi, who had eight tackles, two sacks and two tackles-for-loss against Hawaii, knew the importance of being dominant again at home going into that game.
“We just need to take a hard look at ourselves in the mirror and find out what we’re made of. More than just ‘LaVell’s House,’ this is our house,” Kaufusi said. “What does it mean to you to come to your own place and let a team stomp on you? Or what does it take for us to stomp on other teams because this is our own house? It takes guys looking in the mirror and being accountable.”
Northern Illinois (4-3) at BYU (4-3)
- Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT, LaVell Edwards Stadium
- TV: ESPNU
- Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM